Liberal Education

The University of Wisconsin System Liberal Arts Scholarship Competition: Student Essays

Three undergraduate students from University of Wisconsin (UW) System campuses have won the first annual Liberal Arts Scholarship Competition, established to support and promote liberal education throughout the Wisconsin public university system. Published here are the winning essays on the value of a liberal arts education in the twenty-first century.

The Liberal Arts Scholarship Competition is among the signature activities of the UW System’s liberal education initiative (LEAP Forward Wisconsin) and its partnership with AAC&U.

Significant and Applicable Knowledge:
Liberal Arts in the Twenty-first Century
By Heather Damitz

Last year at this time, I was wandering the streets of Japan. With my digital camera and a sense of adventure, I explored the shrines and temples, documenting what I experienced. I wanted to savor the moments so I could recall them vividly later on. Looking back at those pictures, I remember my first impression of Japan was a sense of the immense population that lives there. I recall the industrial city, the apartment buildings rising into the sky. Families stacked up in small units to create space for businesses and shopping districts. No room for the landscaped thoroughfares so common in the States. At first glance, I took in the sights, sounds, and smells of a heavily populated community. As soon as I got settled, I walked along the small sidewalks throughout the city, taking in everything I could. Turning off one street, I followed a passage running beside a small river.

Gradually, the landscape changed. Instead of garbage cans, tropical plants were lining the path I walked. The small river opened up to a lake, a beautiful pagoda stretched out onto the water. Swans gracefully paddled near the shore. Plum trees blossomed on the surrounding hillsides. A shrine for prayer and reflection blended in unassumingly with the natural setting. It seemed that I had just stumbled into a whole different dimension. I could still see the high rises in the distance making me aware that this haven was nestled safely within the city. The families in the nearby apartments, the workers in the offices, and the diligent students could easily access the park when they needed to unwind or reflect. I realized that there was equilibrium between the sacred shrines and the surrounding community. My understanding of the world and how it worked changed in that moment. I feel that the liberal arts is much like my neighborhood in Japan, a mixture of elements coming together to serve a purpose.

The liberal arts are our chance to explore new areas that we may not have experienced before. Besides gaining knowledge to beat our opponents at Trivial Pursuit, we gain insight on different aspects of our everyday lives. While being an expert in one area is a useful tool for some people, the liberal arts provide a way for anyone to gain basic knowledge in otherwise baffling subjects. When we apply these principles to daily life, we find that we are more equipped to handle problems and circumstances in the world in which we live. Those who do not typically work with mathematical equations in their careers can utilize this knowledge in other areas, such as their finances. A person who would normally shudder in front of an audience can learn techniques to better handle public speaking. A workaholic may find beauty outside the cubicle after developing a taste for the fine arts. The liberal arts are our way to interact with the world around us.

I feel that my learning experiences in a liberal arts college are opening areas of my mind that had grown stagnant. Being out of school for so long, I had forgotten a lot of basic knowledge that I hadn’t utilized in a while. College brings back these principles and expands on them. The part of my brain used for math coughed a dusty sigh and now grinds gears after years of calculator dependency. The simple rules of grammar once again dance in front of me. New knowledge presents itself by way of application performance classes. I can now make a camera out of a tin can and black paint. I feel like MacGyver (sans the mullet) when I tell people of the things I am able to do. I am enjoying the wonderment and satisfaction that comes from learning something new.

“I don’t like spinach,” a friend says as we glance at our menus, deciding what to eat. “Have you tried spinach?” I ask. “No,” comes the response, “but I don’t think I’d like it.” Many times we find ourselves fearing the unknown, afraid to try new things. When we know what it is that we enjoy, we cling to these things and develop around them. Believe me, I did not think I would enjoy a food that still had tentacles attached, but I found the delicacies of Japan surprisingly savory. If we only accepted the things we enjoy, we would hinder our opportunities to grow and change. Naturally that does not mean we should all try hang gliding or cliff jumping, but with everything in life, there are hazards. Those with a background in the liberal arts may be better equipped to deal with the pitfalls, problems, and changes that occur in a natural lifetime. By having knowledge of many different facets of the world, we can make necessary adaptations when changes occur.

Looking back, I am grateful for the opportunities that I have been given. I feel that I have a broader sense of the world than just my immediate surroundings. I have taught English in Japan, volunteered my time as an Americorps worker in Utah, become a therapist for autistic children in Wisconsin, and had the opportunity to take on leadership positions at my college. Those are some of my more exciting achievements. At one point in time, I was making toilet seats in a factory. That time was just as valuable as any other in my life.
I learned about discipline and hard work. I left the factory knowing I could achieve great things if I put forth the effort. There is a connection from where I started to where I am now, little bits of life experience strung together. Gaining knowledge in the liberal arts feels like a natural progression for me.

No matter where we are in the world, there are many different disciplines that affect our lives. The liberal arts expose us to new ideas, attitudes, and ways of understanding our surroundings. It is important to take into account how we relate to each other and our environment so that we can continue to progress and advance in a positive direction. The world is made a better place only by those willing to put forth the effort. By striving to better inform ourselves, we have already taken a step in the right direction.

 

Heather Damitz is a student at the University of Wisconsin–Sheboygan, where she is majoring in English and psychology.


Empowering Citizens for the Twenty-first Century
By Andrew Myszewski

Modern American society tends to view higher education as a means unto itself, as a machine whose inputs are students and money and whose outputs are educated graduates ready for work in their chosen fields of study. Instead of viewing the university’s task as one of training students in their respective areas of inquiry, however, the emphasis should instead lie upon giving students broad tools of analysis and interpretation that enable them to function effectively across disciplines, regardless of what they happen to study while attending the university.

The economic competitiveness of the United States in the twenty-first century will greatly depend upon the ability of the secondary and higher education institutions of our country to produce citizens with the ability to observe, reason, analyze, criticize, understand, and act upon information from increasingly diverse sources, using integrated methods of quantitative and qualitative analysis reaching across the social and natural sciences and the humanities. The demands of the twenty-first century require the colleges and universities of our country to strive toward the development of globally minded, fluid, analytical citizens able to effectively function in the context of an increasingly complex, pluralistic world order.

Since the onset of industrial methods of production in Western Europe over two hundred years ago, technology has worked to weave human societies closer and closer together, for better or for worse. These technologies have enabled astounding leaps in human progress as well as numerous unspeakable horrors from which we do not stand far removed. Modern technology has enabled Western society to feed, clothe, house, and provide for more and more of its citizens, yet such improvements have also been produced through incredible denigrations of human life, including the displacement and extermination of indigenous American peoples, the institution of African chattel slavery in the United States, and the Euro-American colonization of Africa, Asia, South America, and the Pacific. Can the current level of material and technological prosperity enjoyed by so many serve as justification for such atrocities? Can our societies somehow work in the future to bring the nations of the “third world” into the material prosperity of the global marketplace? In order to work as students, citizens, and professionals to solve these and other questions of the new century, the educational institutions of this country must gear themselves to train citizens across a wide span of intellectual disciplines in order to answer these questions in the most comprehensive manner possible.

The same scientific revolution that brought about the onset of industrialization at the beginning of the nineteenth century has confronted modern society with changes that are reshaping it more quickly and fundamentally than is easily understandable. Information and communications technologies, such as laptop computers, cellular phones, ocean-spanning fiber-optic lines, satellites, and the Internet, have resulted in the decline in influence of even the nation-state, which once stood as the primary social institution on the global level, second only to perhaps the family. Multinational corporations now operate across national boundaries, increasing the difficulty of the state’s regulation of economic activity; the rise of global terror networks has redefined our enemies as well-equipped individuals not linked to any single country. These two developments represent examples of how technology is reshaping the world in profound ways; these changes demand citizens equipped with the ability to meet and respond effectively to these challenges.

By providing a broad, empowering liberal arts education pulling from many diverse areas of social, scientific, and humanistic inquiry, colleges and universities can give students the breadth of knowledge necessary for understanding the increasing complexity of our world. By developing the ability of students to analyze problems on both qualitative and quantitative bases, to continually test and reexamine what they know, colleges and universities can give students the tools to apply their knowledge to the world around them. By teaching students how to communicate—to discuss, to argue, to write, to debate—colleges and universities can arm them with the crucial capacity of being able to take action based upon their knowledge.

The goal of a liberal arts education in the twenty-first century must be to empower all citizens to make observations, draw conclusions, test those conclusions against the ideas of others, and use their knowledge to make an impact upon the world. From the beginnings of the European scientific revolution onward, this system of liberal scientific inquiry has revolutionized the process of truth seeking. A broad, liberal arts education represents the key to the richness of this tradition. By providing individuals with these fundamental capacities, a liberal education empowers individuals to act as fully effective citizens within the context of American democracy. The ability of the United States to adapt to the dynamic globalism of the twenty-first century greatly depends on the capacity of our populace to understand and adapt to the fluid context in which they live.

In addition to the social change brought about by the development of new, faster technologies, demographic and cultural changes also demand that individuals be equipped with the ability to respond to these changes. At the onset of the twenty-first century, our society has begun finally to listen to voices that have been silenced throughout our history, the voices of millions of African Americans, women, immigrants, LGBT individuals, and others. Overall, our country has worked continually to broaden the rights and privileges enjoyed by its citizens. Although some may claim that this has to do with some inherent quality of the American people, it only takes place due to the concerted efforts of individuals to understand difference in the face of bigoted adversity. A desire for simple, easy answers to social questions continues to lead too many citizens into the trap of single-minded rigidity that prevents the synthesis of innovative interpretations of social questions leading to social change.

In order for this diversity to serve as a source of national strength and social greatness, and in order for individuals to gain a fuller understanding of the richness of manifold human experience, citizens must be exposed to the diversity of individuals and their lives. Racism, bigotry, sexism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and homophobia represent forces inimical to the maintenance of a healthy, functional society. Educated citizens must strive to understand the differences that exist between themselves and others in order for the expansion of individual freedom implicit in American ideals to continue. Only through the inculcation of tolerance for diverse peoples can we hope to build the bridges of understanding necessary for successful, meaningful citizenship in an era of increasing national diversity and global integration.

Toward the end of the twentieth century and at the dawn of the twenty-first, the establishment of global communication networks has worked to radically alter the nature of physical space on this planet through the progression of globalization. To face the challenge posed by this information revolution, American educational institutions must maximally strive to provide citizens with the skills they need to face these challenges and triumph over them. The challenge posed to our country in this century is not only to produce highly-educated doctors, lawyers, and college professors. The challenge, rather, is to empower the bulk of the American public with the tools of a liberal arts education. By empowering all people, professional and non-professional alike, we can work to ensure the continued economic competitiveness of the United States in the global economy of the twenty-first century.

Andrew Myszewski is a student at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where he is majoring in history and political science.


The Liberal Arts: Preserving Humanity
By Jennifer Urbanek

In the twenty-first century, society is preoccupied by the advancement of technology and the accumulation of material wealth. Perhaps this is why the liberal arts have been given a negative reputation. In a culture propelled by the promise of material possessions, we generally have little care about preserving an intangible humanity. We have become like slaves to the temporary gratification brought by objects. The liberal arts, the artes liberales, literally translate to mean “arts of freedom.” The liberal arts are the conscience of civilization, weighing the heavy ecological, psychological, and moral burden of the twenty-first century’s technological materialism against the values of human expression and individual growth in both personal
studies and work.

Today, people seem to be obsessed with plasma TVs, iPods, and cell phones featuring bells, whistles, and pictures. Our society is completely consumed by material things, which either become obsolete within a few months or eventually lose their thrill. Liberal arts students, however, will recognize these things for what they are. They already know that these “toys” are momentary, and that freedom of human expression outside the limits of technology is necessary for the evolution of humanity at large. However, in a society of consumers driven by the need for instant gratification, the door on the liberal arts seems to be closing.

It is no longer practical to attend college without a future career planned, and is senseless to major in an area that is abstract. “It is quite common to hear parents, even faculty members, say students should get [liberal arts] courses ‘out of the way’ so they can prepare for more important things, a major that prepares one for a career, a job, a profession” (Glyer and Weeks 1998, 23). In fact, I personally had to passionately convince my parents, who had the terrible stereotype of “the starving artist” in their minds, to allow me to major in art. Now I am pressured into the most “marketable” of art-related jobs. Do I want to be a graphic designer or an art teacher? To conciliate my parents, I added an additional major in sociology, another passion of mine. Yet, by double-majoring in two liberal arts I am still taking an intentional risk with my future, with no solid cushioning career to fall back on. Still, no matter what happens, I can say that I planned my college experience according to my own interests. I took the risk, but others may no longer bother with the study of art, music, humanities, philosophy, and dance. Should we not consider these valid to our sense of growth, integrity, or honor unless they provide a paycheck?

Hip-hop artist Aesop Rock (2001) speaks about what the average American citizen trades for a paycheck when he professes

we the American working population hate the fact that eight hours a day is wasted on chasing the dreams of someone who isn’t us. And we may not hate our jobs, but we hate jobs in general that don’t have to do with fighting our own causes. We the American working population hate the nine to five day in day out while we’d rather be supporting ourselves by being paid to perfect the pastimes we have harbored based solely on the fact that it makes us smile.

Imagine a world where we got paid for our interests, not stigmatized for studying whatever our passion may be. Imagine a world where we lived primarily for our minds and spirits and not just merely for the security of material wealth. In an economy dominated by the greater good of the employer instead of the individual, preserving the liberal arts is that much more vital.

Fortunately, some in the business world view the liberal arts as important in developing individuals. In a paper subtitled “The Most Practical and Professional Education for the Twenty-first Century,” author Richard Hersh (1997) states that CEOs and human resource managers are looking for three things: intellectual flexibility, skills in self expression, and a universal understanding of diversity. A degree in liberal arts would certainly guarantee the above qualities. Success in the world depends upon more than an understanding of how “things” work; it requires an understanding of how people work. Gadgets and whistles will change, but the ability to understand and connect with people will not. In fact, Philip Lewis and Rosemary Liegler claim that liberal arts “reflect the breadth of human culture,” which is considered “the foundation of the American democracy” (1998, 47). With the very basis of our government rooted in the liberal arts, society ought to be praising the liberal arts instead of eliminating them. However, this is sadly not the case.

Apparently, our current education system feels that if the budget needs to be cut, liberal arts are the first areas to be neglected. Schools all over the country have been “trimming” their music classes, art classes, and even the gym classes where dance is taught. Ms. April Swick, principal of Clement Avenue Elementary School in the Milwaukee Public School District, states that the full-time staff of art, gym, music, and library has been decreasing steadily over the past ten years. As a result of the budget, she explains, “we can’t cut regular classes, so we had to cut everything else . . . our librarian left, and we have not been able to replace her.” It is now the teacher’s responsibility to integrate the humanities into the curriculum. However, teachers are preoccupied by teaching mandatory “subject matter” that will no doubt be measured by standardized testing, allowing little extra attention to be spent focusing on the liberal arts. At the elementary schooling age a child’s unique creative genius should be celebrated and cultivated, not repressed. A child’s ingenuity is precious and should not have to be sacrificed to school budgeting.

As we know, once the core of a system is eradicated, the entire structure is bound to collapse. If, instead of being taught global responsibility, social awareness, and self-development, we are taught materialism and careerism, we will lose the very essence of our humanity.

Jennifer Urbanek is a student at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, where she is majoring in art and sociology

 


References

Aesop Rock. 2001. 9–5ers anthem. Labor days. Definitive Jux.

Glyer, D., and D. Weeks. 1998. Liberal education: Initiating the conversation. In The liberal arts in higher education: Challenging assumptions, exploring possibilities, ed. D. Glyer and D. Weeks, ix–xxix. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.

Hersh, R. 1997. The liberal arts college: The most practical and professional education for the twenty-first century. Liberal Education 83 (3): 26–33.

Lewis, P., and R. Liegler. 1998. Integrating liberal arts and professional education. In The liberal arts in higher education: Challenging assumptions, exploring possibilities, ed. D. Glyer and D. Weeks, 47–60. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.


LEAP Forward Wisconsin

In 2005, AAC&U named the University of Wisconsin (UW) System as a partner in moving the LEAP agenda forward, and Wisconsin became the first pilot state for AAC&U’s advocacy and campus-action activities. The initiative in Wisconsin connects leaders at the fifteen UW System institutions, as well as other colleges and universities in the state, with the broader public to make the case for the importance of a quality liberal education for all citizens.

In 2004, prior to its involvement in the LEAP campaign, the UW System launched the Currency of the Liberal Arts and Sciences: Rethinking Liberal Education in Wisconsin, an initiative whose goals include

  • making the outcomes of liberal education accessible and valuable to all UW students, regardless of chosen major or type of degree earned;
  • sparking public debate about the kinds of knowledge, skills, habits of mind, and values needed to prepare students for their future roles as citizens;
  • renewing Wisconsin citizens’ understanding of public higher education as a public good, essential to twenty-first-century democracy and civic engagement, and vital to the economic well-being of the state and its citizens;
  • demonstrating that the UW System provides each of its students—regardless of economic background—with the outcomes that characterize a high-quality education;
  • developing a campaign to promote higher education as the key to a vibrant, knowledge-based economy;
  • restoring the state’s commitment to fund public higher
    education with bipartisan support.

As the partnership with AAC&U developed, leaders of the Currency initiative added the goal of making Wisconsin a national model for other states and higher education systems to follow and, building on the state’s motto (“Forward Wisconsin”), launched LEAP Forward Wisconsin to develop and test the strategies described below.

Campus action

To make the teaching and learning of liberal education goals intentional among faculty, staff, and students at UW institutions, several efforts are underway:

  • the formation of the UW System Advisory Group on
    the Liberal Arts, composed of deans, faculty, and staff from most of the UW institutions, as well as staff from
    the UW System administration
  • the creation of the annual UW System Liberal Arts Scholarship Competition, open to undergraduates throughout the system
  • the establishment of the Syllabus Project, in which participating faculty refer explicitly to liberal education outcomes in their syllabi and discuss them with students
  • online dialogues among faculty and students across
    colleges on the meaning and value of liberal education
  • expanding the participation of professional schools and colleges in the LEAP Forward Wisconsin initiative
  • system-wide reconsideration of how to assess and provide accountability for students meeting liberal education outcomes

Public outreach and advocacy

Several recent and ongoing activities have been designed to spread the word to the public and within the UW System:

  • seven campus–community dialogues on the topic of literacy and civic life, held in 2005–6 with funding from the Wisconsin Humanities Council
  • AAC&U focus groups on what really matters in college—held in 2005 with rising high school seniors and currently enrolled college students, and in 2006 with business leaders
  • an alumni interview project on the value of liberal
    education
  • collaboration with high school counselors, admissions counselors, and other first contacts for incoming college students

Leadership

In addition to the development of an advisory or leadership council—composed of Wisconsin decision-makers from politics, business and industry, the arts, the nonprofit sector, and all educational sectors—several leadership activities are currently underway:

  • collaboration with Wisconsin Lieutenant Governor
    Barbara Lawton, a member of the LEAP National
    Leadership Council
  • collaboration with the Wisconsin Technical College
    System and the Wisconsin Association of Independent Colleges and Universities on a spring 2007 faculty development conference focused on the assessment of liberal education outcomes

For more information, visit www.uwsa.edu/acadaff/liberalarts.


To respond to this article, e-mail liberaled@aacu.org, with the authors’ names on the subject line.

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